Burlesque. Just the word conjures up thoughts of buxom, ‘50s-era ladies sassily taking it off in tawdry, smoke-filled venues to primal drum beats and deep, sultry saxophones, all while lusty men in testosterone-fueled crowds catcall in heated anticipation of the next piece of clothing coming off and floating aimlessly to the floor. It feels more than a little like a classic film noir, where steamy mystery abounds in society’s murky underbelly of dark, long shadows and telling, sideways glances.
As a self-admitted film noir freak, this other world of vague danger and scantily clad women has always held a deep fascination for me, so when my husband gave me six burlesque sessions for my birthday this year, I couldn’t wait to fulfill my nocturnal fantasy of at least momentarily joining the ranks of these beautiful ladies. I mean, who wouldn’t want to learn how to stir men (or in my case one man, my husband) into an uncontrollable frenzy with such simple things as a wink of an eye or an achingly slow and mesmerizing removal of a glove?
In one form or another, burlesque has been a staple of both high- and low-brow society since the 16th century. The art form has always involved some kind of parody or comedy, but it wasn’t until after World War I that striptease entered burlesque variety shows. Striptease, which has always been more “tease” than “strip,” quickly caught on, so much so that it even saved a world’s fair and its surrounding city from bankruptcy. Yes, it really did.
Dubbed “The Century of Progress,” the long-planned and much-anticipated Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 was about to open just as the devastating Great Depression was entering its second dismal year with no end in sight. Fair organizers and financial backers were justifiably worried that people would be more concerned about putting food on the table than spending their hard-earned and increasingly rare dollars venturing to Chicago for the two-season-long event. Also, with the city itself facing bankruptcy, it was doubly important that the fair succeed.
Just as desperate for success was Sally Rand, a one-time Hollywood starlet and fading vaudevillian who saw the fair as her last great chance for stardom. At the pre-opening gala for all of the fair big wigs, the daring Rand road into the party astride a gleaming white horse, completely and totally bare-ass naked. To say that she made an impression on the glitzy crowd is a vast understatement: she was arrested for being lewd, but the gimmick worked and Rand found herself with a contract doing her risqué, but teasingly unrevealing fan dance in the Streets of Paris pavilion on the Midway. Check her fan dance!
Rand’s act was an immediate hit, and she quickly became the darling of the fair — to everyone but the law, that is. Soon after the fair began, Rand was arrested, again for lewd acts for dancing nearly nude. While she spent hours waiting to be bailed out, fair backers noticed that Midway grosses were taking a big hit without the popular Sally Rand there to perform. In fact, that day’s receipts suffered such a huge hit that city leaders and fair backers bailed Rand out and quickly got her back to work. Thereafter, she was left alone to become a huge star and the fair’s biggest money maker. When it closed at the end of the season in 1934, the fair that many feared would be a dismal failure was the first in decades to make money, causing the big wigs and even Oklahoma’s own Will Rogers to declare that Rand had saved it — and if he said it, it surely must be true.
With Rand’s grand triumph, burlesque was well on its way to its glory years, with such post-World War II stars as Lily St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, and the raven-haired Blaze Starr (who was also known for her passionate dalliance with Louisiana governor, Earl Long) leading the way. All of these lovelies performed together here in Oklahoma City back in 1957.
Also, if you get a chance, have a look at Starr’s mesmerizing and oh-so-erotic “smoldering bed” routine and you’ll quickly understand Long’s fascination for the lovely striptease artist.
Sadly, the heyday didn’t last for long. Just as people fled to the ‘burbs and inner cities began to crumble in despair in the early ‘60s, laws were changed to allow clubs to have completely naked dancers perform. The sultry glamor and suggestive routines were gone, replaced with seedy urban glumness and lackluster performers. And once-grand downtown theaters that housed vaudeville, variety, and burlesque shows for decades opted to go the cheaper route and show very unsexy XXX-rated movies instead.
Here in Oklahoma City, such beautiful venues as the glorious, Spanish-themed Midwest Theater began showing “obscene” films, often those naughty foreign ones that got priggish mayors and city councils up in arms. And the Midwest Theater’s owner found himself in court several times in the early ‘70s defending his theatrical selections. It wasn’t long after these cases that the Midwest came down, considered useless and blighted by short-sighted Urban Renewal leaders.
And so, like the opulent theaters that beautiful striptease queens once ruled, burlesque faded away into obscurity and there the genre remained until a new generation discovered the art form in the early ‘90s. Out of old theater trunks came feather boas, fishnet hose, barely there costumes, and super-long gloves as burlesque wannabes, nostalgic for the glamour of yesteryear, sought to revive this nearly-dead art form. Also, many of the original burlesque stars were still around and happy to mentor the eager upstarts, even teaching them long-forgotten routines and important tricks of the trade (e.g., Velco as a pull away is noisy and bad, very bad).
The resurgence has been a huge success, with burlesque stars popping up all over the country, including right here in Oklahoma City with the sublime and ultra alluring Adele Wolf. With her dark Bettie Page bangs, suggestive brown eyes, and sultry red lips, Adele looks like she was born to be a glamorous burlesque queen and would fit in perfectly next to the heyday likes of Starr or St. Cyr. She started out as a dance and theater major but, like most neo-burlesquers, her love for post-World War II fashion and culture led her away from proper theater and to the now-hopping world of striptease.
What started off as a hobby has now blossomed into a full-time career, with Adele not only performing throughout the city but also strutting her gorgeous stuff at venues and festivals all over the country, including the Shimmy Showdown in St. Louis and a week-long stint at the Blue Book at Lucky Pierre’s in New Orleans. She also performed at last summer’s monstrous Mumford & Sons-sponsored Gentleman of the Road weekend festival in Guthrie and headed to Seattle for burlesque’s biggest annual gathering, Burlycon. Now in its seventh year, Burlycon is where performers from just about everywhere gather together to network, learn new tricks, and techniques, and receive feedback for routines in progress.
Unlike the burlesque days of yore where it was mostly men who produced shows, choreographed routines, and managed — or manipulated in many cases — powerless female artists, these days burlesque is run by the performers themselves. Adele is one of the new breed of confident, strong women in burlesque who both performs and produces her own highly successful, oft-sold out extravaganzas, most recently on Valentine’s Day at the Oklahoma Contemporary in Fair Park.
Every one of her Adele Wolf Burlesque and Variety Show events introduces Oklahoma City audiences to a wide array of internationally-acclaimed talent. There might be a seductive vixen performing a sexy striptease followed by an artist incorporating comedy into her act. Or she may be succeeded by a singer or a clown or, as in the Valentine’s Day performance, a spot-on Charlie Chaplin impersonator.
Variety is definitely an integral part of Adele’s shows, and with her pulling double duty as flirty emcee and performer, the raucous audience is in store for what is, by far, the most fun evening of entertainment to be found anywhere in town.
After attending a few of Adele’s shows, I quickly realized that women of all shapes and sizes are confidently showing off their beautiful burlesque bodies, which made me want to jump in and join them. After two kids and a few extra pounds, I wanted to feel as confident and beautiful with my body as they do, as well as live my film noir fantasy. Perhaps understanding this, my lovely husband bought me the beginner package of burlesque lessons with the lovely Miss Wolf. Now that I think about it, he probably bought them more for himself than for me – I mean, who doesn’t want his/her significant other to perform a sultry striptease every now and then? Either way, this is the best gift he’s ever given me. Definitely. By far. THE BEST.
To get in the mood for my latest adventure, I watched “Gypsy” for about the 842nd time and delighted, as always, in watching Natalie Wood morph from gangly and awkward tomboy, Louise, into the uber-glamorous, Gypsy Rose Lee, who is still the most famous stripper of all time even 60 years after her heyday. If I could pull off a well-timed bump here and a bit of humor there a la Natalie performing “Let Me Entertain You” in the movie, I’d be a very happy girl, indeed. That, however, is the rub. I’m probably the least coordinated attempted burlesque dancer in the genre’s long history and any effort I’ve ever made at alluring dancing for my always-encouraging husband usually results in copious giggles when all is said and done. But if anyone can teach me the moves, it’s certainly the amazing Adele.
The beginner series of classes combines class time – learning the history of burlesque and getting a primer on hair, make-up, costuming, and stage presence – with what Adele calls “movement” classes. This is where you learn some basic tricks of the trade, such as the iconic bump and grind, glove removal, and walking. It’s all about slow, seductive, and slinky – three things I know very little about.
To give you a picture of just how inept I am at all of this sex kitten stuff, for our first movement class, we had to learn how to walk very elegantly across the stage in high heels. Adele instructed us to walk with our body to the audience, all while pointing our toes, smiling, and positioning our hands gracefully. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it certainly was for my much more coordinated classmates, who strolled across the floor as beautifully and effectively as Marilyn Monroe making her way to the train in “Some Like It Hot.” I, on the other hand, looked more like the Jack Lemmon character from the same movie, bumbling and stumbling across the rehearsal room floor in too-high shoes that killed my feet and that I couldn’t wait to get home and ceremoniously toss in the trash. No pointy toes for me, no smile, no elegant hands – just a pained expression on my face as I hobbled along with my awkward man hands that I felt a huge urge to hide in non-existent pockets. Alas, there are no pockets in burlesque!
Okay, so walking was going to be a challenge. But I felt better when we started the bumping and grinding portion of our instruction. With my abundance of natural curves, this is something that I actually didn’t look too horrible doing; my confidence continued to grow when we learned about glove removal and I found myself getting downright slinky with it. Yeah, this was good – really good.
Although it’s going to take quite awhile before I’m ready to put on “Let Me Entertain You” and dance for my hubby, I know now that Adele can transform me from a clutzy suburban mom into a vampy burlesque goddess. I just need a few more lessons…
Here are a few tips for going to a burlesque show:
- Dress up. Women don their slinky dresses and red lipstick for these bashes, so go along with the flow and channel your inner burlesque queen for the evening. Men, you too. Get that fedora out of the closet that your wife bought you for Christmas a few years ago and you haven’t worn since and find a fun tie to wear. Bad Grannies in the Plaza District has all kinds of vintage wear if you want to go on a little shopping spree before the show.
- Get loose. To help you, there’s a bar at the theater, so I encourage you to have a libation or two before the show begins to get you in the mood for all of the fun.
- Be loud. Adele does NOT like a polite audience. Oh no! You will be expected to hoot and holler, to woot-woot through every performance. If you do, she might slip a little extra reveal if you’re lucky.
Also, if you need a burlesque fix in between Adele’s shows, here are a few movies you can watch:
- The Naked and the Dead (1958): You can see a censored version of one of Lily St. Cyr’s routines in this one.
- The aforementioned “Gypsy” is a must.
- “Striporama” features one of the few performances by pin-up icon, Bettie Page.
- “The Night They Raided Minksy’s” is a fictional account of the birth of the striptease.
- “Blaze” depicts the passionate romance between Huey Long and Blaze Starr.
- There have been few sexier stripteases captured on film than the one Selma Hayek performs in Robert Rodriguez’ “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Love her prop, too.
Finally, if you’re interested in joining me in taking some of Adele’s fun classes, go to her website to enroll.
You can also check out Adele’s next show “Spring Fling” on April 26th, and I would HIGHLY recommend going to the 2nd annual, Adele-produced Oklahoma City Burlesque Festival on June 20-21, where you’ll get a chance to see internationally-acclaimed artists Medianoche from New York City and St. Louis’s own Lola Van Ella perform.
To see all the photos from Adele’s Valentine’s Day show, click here.